How much damage could Donald Trump really do, after all?

Some of the people planning to cast protest votes in November have a bedtime story they love to tell themselves. In the story, Donald Trump’s election wouldn’t be such a bad thing because the diffusion of power in the American political system would prevent him from carrying out the worst of his lunatic schemes.

Now, there is a germ of an idea there: political and institutional constraints greatly limit the power of a President. But it’s worth noting that the political constraints generally act through the perceptions of the President and those around him about what he can, and can’t, get away with: that is, precisely the sort of thing that would have kept Trump-the-candidate from, e.g., hurling ethnic insults at a federal judge. A President unfazed by criticism, and willing to ignore advice about the limits of his lawful authority from the Office of Legal Counsel, actually can get quite a lot done.  No President in the modern era – even Nixon – has dared to say what President Jackson said about a Supreme Court ruling: “Mr. Justice Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.” But what if we had a President who was willing to behave that way, surrounded by advisers egging him on to do so?  Trump’s power for evil might be substantially greater than (e.g.) Obama’s power for good.

Today a friend challenged me on this point: Make a list of ten really, really bad things that President Trump could actually do. A little bit of emailing around produced the following list. I’ve divided it into two groups: the “stroke-of-the-pen” things that a President could accomplish just by ordering them, and other things that would require Congressional approval or help from state governments. But let’s not forget that Trump’s election would almost certainly mean both that he had a Republican Senate and House to work with and that the Republican members of those bodies would mostly be terrified of primary challenges should they oppose the imperial will.

The distinction between the two groups is not absolute; in principle, the appropriations power could be used to constrain virtually any Presidential action, in the extreme by zero-budgeting the Executive Office of the President, leaving The Donald to write his own orders. And of course there is always the impeachment power. But again, an election that brings us Trump would be likely to disable those safeguards as well.

“With a stroke of the pen”

  1. Withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on global warming.
  2. Abrogate the nuclear deal with Iran, setting the stage for either war with Iran or Iranian development of a nuclear weapon. (Or both.)
  3. Deny hostile, or even objective, journalists and media outlets access to information by refusing them admittance to press conferences, instructing appointed and public-affairs officials to refuse all interviews, and subjecting even routine data requests to FOIA delays. That will have three effects: disabling the effective capacity of the independent media to exercise oversight; giving professional and business advantages to complaisant reporters and their outlets; and creating incentives for reporters and outlets alike to stay in the Administration’s good graces.
  4. Institute criminal investigation and prosecution of political opponents. The Attorney General, the FBI Director, and the 94 United States Attorneys all serve at the pleasure of the President. (The 10-year term of the FBI Director is a maximum, not a minimum, and Bill Clinton fired Director William Sessions in 1993.) Now imagine FBI Director Chris Christie, reporting to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Those positions, and the U.S. Attorney slots, are all Senate-confirmable, but even if the Senate were to resist the President could appoint all of them on an acting basis.
  5. Use tax enforcement and the award or denial of tax-exempt status to punish enemies and rewards friends. The Director of the IRS is also a Presidential appointee. Civil-service protections would make it harder to replace IRS career staff with political loyalists, but the GWB Administration made substantial progress in filling the Justice Department with Republican apparatchiki, and the same could be done at the IRS.
  6. Attack “liberal-leaning” universities and not-for-profit research enterprises by either interfering with the grant process directly or by using financial or compliance audits to disqualify them.
  7. End enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. This is entirely at the discretion of USDoJ, and no doubt Assistant Attorney General Kris Kobach will have other priorities.
  8. Cease Department of Justice investigations into police misconduct.
  9. Mount a massive deportation process. Direct the Department of Homeland Security to target and remove persons who registered under DACA and DAPA.
  10. Investigate the “loyalty” of Muslims in the civil service and the military.
  11. Substantially reduce enforcement of anti-discrimination law, including revoking executive orders that require nondiscrimination by federal contractors.
  12. Block all entry of refugees.
  13. Wreck the Affordable Care Act in practical terms by reversing the administrative decisions that make it feasible, and destroy it legally by conceding its unconstitutionality the next  time it is challenged in court.
  14. Loosen regulation and virtually eliminate enforcement of all environmental laws, workplace health and safety laws, and consumer protections. Early targets would be the Obama Administration’s aggressive attack on air pollution from coal-fired power plants and the newly-instituted fiduciary-standards rule for pension advisers.
  15. Reinstitute torture by replacing the Army Field Manual with Bush-era interrogation “standards.” I do not believe that most, or even many, senior officers would abide by such orders. But the President is, indeed, Commander-in-Chief, and only custom keeps him from firing those who disobey unlawful orders. (When President Lincoln was told that Confederate forces had captured forty mules and two major-generals, he replied, “Too bad about the mules. Major-generals I can make.” Ranks of O-4 [major or lieutenant commander] and above require Senate confirmation, but junior officers are created by Presidential fiat, and brevet promotions are unlimited.)
  16. Encourage Russian aggression in Europe by renouncing our NATO obligations. Start by recognizing Russian sovereignty over the Crimea.
  17. Withdraw the U.S. from other treaties and international organizations: WTO, NAFTA, the U.N., the Paris Treaty on international climate change.
  18. Encourage Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons by raising questions about the validity of our security commitments.
  19. Unofficially encourage or sponsor the growth of armed far-right “militia” groups, and discourage enforcement of federal laws against them (e.g., vigilante border enforcement groups, takeovers of federal lands by “sovereign citizen” organizations).

By legislative action or with the advice and consent of the Senate, or the help of state governments

  1. Appoint at least one and perhaps three Supreme Court justices on the Alito model, locking in a right-wing majority for a generation.
  2. Reduce tax rates for the rich.
  3. Block grant food stamps and/or Medicaid.
  4. Appoint anti-worker and anti-union members to the National Labor Relations Board.
  5. End federal support for the full range of women’s health services, including ending the federal partnership with Planned Parenthood.
  6. Increase domestic production of coal and oil while ending public investment in renewable energy.
  7. Repeal of Dodd-Frank, Sarbanes-Oxley, consumer financial protection laws.
  8. Disenfranchise Democrats with a combination of voter-suppression tactics (shorter voting hours, fewer voting machines leading to longer waits, hard-to-meet “voter ID” rules) and gerrymandering. In the extreme, use electronic vote counting to simply miscount the votes.

A story is told of Benjamin Franklin. As he left the Constitutional Convention – which did its work in secret – for the last time, a woman stopped him to ask, “Well, Dr. Franklin? What have you given us? A monarchy, or a republic?” Franklin answered, “A republic, madam: if you can keep it.”

This is not a game. Institutions do not maintain themselves.  Not all damage is reversible. I do not believe that Trump will be elected, and I do not believe that, if he were elected, that would be the last relatively free and fair election for President. But it’s not impossible.  Let’s not do the experiment.

I consider this list provisional. Please suggest additions, subtractions, and edits in comments. Do not take that as an invitation to debate. Comments of the form”but howsabout Hillary?” will be relentlessly zapped.

 

Defending the indefensible: Althouse on Trump’s blood libel

There’s always something to be learned from watching seemingly intelligent people defending the indefensible.

Ann Althouse teaches law at the University of Wisconsin, which implies that her IQ must be above room temperature. (Her moral standing, given her at-best-ambivalence about torture (oh, I’m sorry, that’s merely “harsh interrogation techniques”)  is another matter.)  But her hatred of liberals and liberalism is so vehement that she supports Gov. Scott Walker, despite (because of?) his attacks on the University where she teaches. Still, you’d think that Donald Trump would be a bridge too far for anyone not actually a mouth-breather.

But pundits gotta pund, and apparently Althouse regards the common-sense approach adopted by many others on the Right – denouncing Trump as No True Conservative – too obvious, or insufficiently likely to raise the blood pressure of the people she despises.  Continue reading “Defending the indefensible: Althouse on Trump’s blood libel”

Are Mexicans a “race”? (And is Mark Halperin a “journalist”?)

If you think too hard about the fact that the Republican Party is about to nominate for President a man who calls a judge born in Indiana, both of whose parents were citizens, “a Mexican,” and says that the judge’s ethnic pride makes him unfit to handle a case involving that nominee, it will just make you sad and angry, which doesn’t do anyone much good, though it might cheer you up that no even reasonably prominent Republican has been willing to defend Trump on this. (Alberto Gonzales doesn’t count.)

So instead of the outrage to common decency, the rule of law, and the fundamental principle of American patriotism that descent doesn’t define citizenship, let’s concentrate instead on the side-show provided by the ever-willing Mark Halperin.

When his colleague John Heilemann called Trump’s latest ravings “pure racial politics,” Halperin replied “No, it’s not racial … Mexico isn’t a race.” Some commenters are willing to treat Halperin’s point as technically correct, though irrelevant to the larger issue involved. That’s too generous to Halperin.

Yes, Twentieth-Century anthropologists defined “race” in terms of a handful of groups sharing biological ancestry, and that’s the current use of the term in popular discourse: “Caucasian” is a “race,” while “Italian” is not. (Scientific discourse is a more complicated matter.)

But “race” in English and its cognates in the Romance languages derive from the Latin radix (=”root”), and through at least the Nineteenth Century the primary meaning of “race” was simply “descent group.” The distinction between biological and linguistic relationships wasn’t clearly made, and the differences between, e.g., the “Anglo-Saxon” English and the “Celtic” Scots or Irish were understood as “racial” differences.

Nazi ideology was based on this older concept of “race.” A definition of “racism” that leaves out Nazi hostility toward Jews (and Slavs and Roma), and their belief in a Nordic “master race,” leaves out a lot. And of course the Nazis were not alone in regarding Jews as a “race.” When Australia largely rejected Jewish refugees from Hitler, one official said, “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.”

The differences between European-descended people in the U.S. and most Mexicans is in fact “racial” (in the restrictive contemporary sense of the term) as well as national and linguistic; most Mexicans trace the majority of their ancestry to the original inhabitants of the Americas and not to Europe.

So it would be charitable, but wrong, to treat Halperin’s remark as heartless and pedantic but technically correct. It was merely his usual derp.

Footnote Trump’s attack on Judge Curiel isn’t the only case where he’s not getting much backing even from those Republicans who have verbally endorsed him; he was also pretty much alone when Hillary Clinton shredded him on foreign policy. The wheel of karma still turns, and time wounds all heels.

Trump reverses course on unlawful orders

Just the day after he doubled down on his assertion that he could order the U.S. military to violate the laws of war by committing torture and murdering enemies’ families, and that he would be obeyed because he’s such a great leader, Donald Trump backed off, without of course admitting that he’d be wrong.

Of course that’s good news. Anything  that reminds people that war – and politics – are contests within rules is, to that extent, valuable. The worst thing among many bad things about Trump his consistent message that the rules only apply to “losers” and “p*ssies.”

Why did he do it? After all, backing off is not Trump’s strong suit (though neither is consistency). It’s impossible to be sure at a distance, but my guess is that he was told by people he has to listen to that – while he can get away with a lot – he couldn’t get away with dissing the military. Perhaps the combination of the letter by 25 Republican-foreign-policy Establishment figures, the furious denunciation by Mitt Romney, and the fairly harsh words from John McCain finally sunk in, though all of those took place before the debate.

Hudathunkit? Looks as if The Donald might be minimally educable after all. Of course that doesn’t make him fit to be President, but it suggests that limits still apply. That’s a relief.

Update Kevin Drum offers a more cynical take: Trump was relying on the fact that masses of people would see and hear him acting tough while much smaller numbers – but including members of elites he needs to please – would read about the retraction. That makes him a winner both ways. The only sure thing about the 2016 election is that the more cynical interpretation is likely to be the correct one.

Donald Trump, Michael Hayden, unlawful orders, and the Establishment

Michael Hayden is a retired four-star general who ran the NSA and then the CIA under George W. Bush. Bill Maher asked him about Donald Trump’s plans to, for example, kill the families of terrorists, and Hayden replied that the armed forces would refuse to obey unlawful orders.

This is (1) unsurprising (2) surprising and (3) significant.

Continue reading “Donald Trump, Michael Hayden, unlawful orders, and the Establishment”

Good news for Donald Trump!

Trump’s buddy Vladimir Putin – the career secret policeman Trump awarded an “A” for “leadership” –  is only “probably” a murderer.

A Flack-of-the-Year nomination goes to Kremlin spokesgeek Dmitry S. Peskov, who said that the murder of  Alexander Litvinenko – for blowing the whistle on an earlier Putin-ordered murder – “is not among the topics that interest us.”

A grown-up talks to grown-ups about ISIL

What we saw on TV this evening was the product as advertised: No Drama Obama. The President said what had to be said. We need, he told us, to do measured, reasoned things to defend ourselves at home and abroad, and one of  them is cultivating a split between the radical Islamic fringe and the mass of Muslims.

This is the basic point that divides Obama from Trump and Cruz and Rubio and everyone in the 101st Chairborne Division who insists that Obama say “Islamic terrorism.” Really, it’s not hard to see that when it comes to Christianity: those of us who aren’t Christians want Christians to disavow Junior Falwell and the Westboro Baptist Church and that Bible-thumper who just shot up the Planned Parenthood clinic, and we know we can’t achieve that by insisting that every lunatic who has a cross at home or a pulpit to pound, and kills someone or makes speeches full of hatred, demonstrates that Christianity, as such, is evil.

By the same token, putting massive numbers of U.S. troops on the ground in Syria would be to follow the fox into the briarpatch. That, after all, is the great lesson of the Iraqi adventure. (As  @Lib_Librarian – not otherwise known to me – Tweeted, “You know the stupid thing we did before? Which got us in this mess? Yeah, let’s try to avoid that this time.”)  “Not doing stupid sh*t” isn’t an emotionally satisfying foreign policy principle, but it beats the alternative all hollow.

But in some ways the tone of the speech was even more important than the substance. The President made his case with logical force but without dramatic passion. No anger. No shouting. He addressed us as a grown-up talking to other grown-ups about a difficult situation, not an adolescent gangbanger egging his homies on to some act of emotionally satisfying, but disastrous, retaliatory violence.

What Barack Obama’s fans love about him is precisely what the Red Team hates: his sanity. Unlike Trump, he doesn’t appeal to people who want a leader to express their rage for them and make them feel righteous about it: An Angry-Drunk-in-Chief.

What we need most, at this moment, is courage: the courage, as the President said yesterday, not to be terrorized, not to give the terrorists the power that only we can give them, by letting them bait us into folly, like stallion driven mad by a horsefly.

What I felt when the speech was over was a mixture of gratitude and pride: gratitude that we are being led by someone who prefers accuracy to dramatic passion, and pride, as both a Democrat and an American, at having a leader worth following.

Footnote  Given that being placed on the “no-fly” list means that, if you’re an American citizen abroad, you’re effectively stranded there, a virtual exile, Obama’s argument that someone dangerous enough to be on that list shouldn’t be able to acquire an arsenal seems reasonably sound. On the other hand, the objection that people are put on the list without due process, and have no effective recourse once they’re on it, also seems cogent. So how about we compromise: Give everyone on the no-fly list full notice and an opportunity to be heard and represented, and extend the consequences of being on that list to not being able to buy weaponry?